Required Reading: Who was Manny Farber? Film bloggers respond

On the eve of our Manny Farber series, these film bloggers reflect on what makes Farber so important in the history of film.

“We lost Manny Farber in a summer shot through with worry and alarm over the state of film criticism. Returning to his essays, many of us found ourselves jolted, aroused, slapped awake all over again to the possibilities of prose – and perhaps, too, to the realization that the greatest current threat to criticism is not economics but homogeneity, the lulling lure of an always-on feedback loop offered by a community that knows no geography, no hurdles to publishing, no friction. In response to Farber’s example, mass imitation, of course, would be a disaster; but mass inspiration may be Farber’s parting gift.”

-David Hudson, Green Cine Daily

“Flip to any random page of Negative Space and start reading. Soon the feeling will come: tens of dozens of ping-pong balls of thought lobbing and smacking into the walls of your skull, and bouncing around there. It’s hardly an unpleasant sensation. In truth, it’s a giddy one; some of the balls make you laugh, some of them make you cross, some of them make you cross your eyes, some of them knock you right down and make you think, “How could I have thought that when this is so obviously right?” And of course every now and then you do think, “Well that’s just wrong. But still…” And the balls keep coming.

Everyone agrees that nobody wrote about film like Manny Farber did. Fact is, nobody wrote, or writes, like Manny Farber did, period.”

-Glenn Kenny, Some Came Running

“It seems to me that one of the problems with many critics today is that they can’t stop talking about themselves. Their place in film history, then, now, and forever; whether they feel as if they’re clinging to the hull of a sinking ship or rising above it, the need for constant self-definition is revealing and enervating. It’s hard to imagine Manny Farber putting himself through such agonizing paroxysms. Whereas too many critics see film writing as a form of problem solving (their own and the film’s), for Farber criticism was not a mathematical equation (precisely balancing flaws and redeeming traits for a hopeful outcome) but a searching, solitary act with an unknowable result.

A consensus seems to have emerged that Farber’s lasting gift to film criticism was his definition and recuperation of “underground films,” those of the Wellmans and the Fullers, the burly, two-fisted craftsmen; yet this inevitably masculine approach to film history often denies that this man’s very same set of principles were applied so well and without force to works of the avant-garde as well. Farber’s response to Chantal Akerman’s coiled, feminist Jeanne Dielman remains ever true to his focused yet expansive view of art. A beautiful quote about Jeanne Dielman explains this: “The conditions of a minimal underground film…couldn’t have found a better narrative than the one in which a life dedicated to perfection breeds its opposite, an apocalypse of sinister results.” This is not to suppose that Farber was everything to everyone at all times (through his writings, he remained fastidiously himself), but that for him film always retained its pulsating mysteries even as it evolved or mutated. While too many critics bend over backwards to establish a widely functional set of aesthetic and moral criteria, Farber just wrote, and wrote without self-betrayal. To say we should all strive for this in writing is too limited; we should strive for this in life.”

-Michael Koresky, Reverse Shot, Criterion

“For me, the foremost contribution that Manny Farber has made to my life and work as a film critic is the demonstration that criticism itself at its best can be the work of an artist. This means not only that it can explore and experiment as well as describe, explain, analyze, and imitate the work being written about. It also means that the activity of criticism can qualify as a kind of performance existing within a given frame–in the case of Manny, a literary performance resembling both an onrushing jazz solo and a multidirectional painting.”

-Jonathan Rosenbaum,

“Farber had few peers in his ability to describe the surfaces of films. The critic Donald Phelps wrote that for Farber, the depths of a film lay in its surfaces. This meant that the activity of interpretation–plumbing the depths of an artwork to unearth its various meanings–often held little interest for him.”

-Girish Shambu, Girish

“Manny Farber adopted the colorful style of the twenties sportwriters he admired, and with Otis Ferguson looking over his shoulder, developed an idiosyncratic critical language all his own. Early on, he championed the manly gut-punch of directors like Hawks, Walsh, and Fuller, while riotously thumping the phony, overheated theatrics of Welles, Wilder, Kazan, and Stevens. Attuned always to the aesthetics of space, he was also a phenomenally gifted (and eccentric) observer of acting talent. Even today, he has as much to teach us about the way films look and feel, the mise en scène and other machinery of cinema’s effects, of what makes good films work and why, as any film critic living or dead.”

-Damon Smith,

“The high muzzle velocity of his films is due to the anarchic energy generated as they constantly shake themselves free of attitudes that threaten to slow them down.”  — “Preston Sturges: Success in the Movies” (1954)

That velocity is what is undoubtedly sexy about Farber’s writing; you’ll find yourself picking up speed only to jam for a moment, take a few blinks, and re-read the last paragraph again or sputter off laughing.  Here lies the ingredients of a great performance; somebody should make them into a play.  Farber’s rubber thumbed nose at ‘photographic weight’ in “the almond-paste-flavored eminence” of smug pictures has become an absorbed odometer one should check once your eyes hit the screen.”

-Daniel Stuyck & Ross Wilbanks,

Required Reading is a special series of articles tied to the Film Society’s Manny Farber series. Check back frequently for new reviews, interviews, podcasts and more related to this two-week series of classic cinema.

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